Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In Memoriam

In some ways, I suppose, 2009 began the way every year does. People died. Some were famous. Others were not. As the year progressed, though, 2009 seemed to develop a reputation — fairly or not — for being a year when celebrities died, many before their time.

Perhaps that reputation was spawned by the number of big names that departed the scene this year. In a group that large, there are bound to be those who die before the actuarial tables say they should. But, in truth, there was little hint of what was to come when the year started.

On New Year's Day, for example, Claiborne Pell, for whom the Pell Grants are named, died at the age of 90.

The next day, the world's oldest verified person died in Portugal at the age of 115. She would be followed by the second–oldest person, who died at the age of 113 on Jan. 19, and the person who replaced her as the oldest living person, who died at the age of 115 in September. In May, a woman in Kazakhstan who claimed to have been born in 1879 (which was unverified) died, supposedly at the age of 130.

Actor Pat Hingle died at the age of 84 the day after that. And, as George W. Bush prepared to vacate the White House, his cat India died at the age of 18, which would be tragically young for a human but is elderly in feline terms. (Bill Clinton's cat, Socks, was euthanized at the age of 19 on Feb. 20.)

January also saw the deaths of former Attorney General Griffin Bell, 90, on Jan. 5; actor Ricardo Montalban, 88, on Jan. 14; artist Andrew Wyeth, 91, on Jan. 16; and women's basketball coach Kay Yow, 66, on Jan. 24.

As January gave way to February, actor James Whitmore, 87, died on Feb. 6. Alan Landers, known as the "Winston man" for his appearances in advertisements for Winston cigarettes, died at the age of 68 on Feb. 27. Broadcaster Paul Harvey died at the age of 90 on Feb. 28.

In March, actor Ron Silver died at 62 on March 15. Jade Goody, a British reality TV star, died of cancer at age 27 on March 22.

I guess the next month is when Americans began to get an inkling that 2009 might not be a good year for avoiding premature death. Pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed in a car accident at the age of 22 on April 9, only hours after his first start for the Los Angeles Angels.

Adenhart's death could be dismissed as an anomaly, although famed pornographic actress Marilyn Chambers died at 56 on April 12 and former big–league phenom Mark "The Bird" Fidrych died at 54 the next day. Heisman Trophy winner Doc Blanchard died at 84 on April 19. Actress Bea Arthur died at 86 on April 25.

May had barely dawned when former Republican vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp died at 73. Two days later, actor Dom DeLuise died at 75. Basketball player Wayman Tisdale died at 44 on May 15.

Perhaps it was in June when the wheels came off, and people started thinking of 2009 as the year when famous people died before their time. It didn't begin that way, but, on June 25, Farrah Fawcett died at the age of 62 and Michael Jackson died at the age of 50. A few days later, TV pitchman Billy Mays died, also at the age of 50.

Actor David Carradine was 72 when he was found dead by accidental hanging on June 3, but in the public's memory he was still in his late 30s and early 40s, his age range when he appeared in the 1970s TV series "Kung Fu." Another TV personality, Ed McMahon, died at 86 on June 23.

Actor Karl Malden died at 97 on July 1. The next day, Richard Nixon's communications director, Herb Klein, died at 91. Football player Steve McNair, 36, was found murdered on July 4. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara died at 93 on July 6. On July 17, as America anticipated the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, TV newsman Walter Cronkite, who covered the moon landing for CBS, died at 92.

Former Philippine President Corazon Aquino died at 76 on Aug. 1. Movie director John Hughes died at 59 on Aug. 6. Eunice Kennedy Shriver died at age 88 on Aug. 11, followed two weeks later by her brother, Teddy, who was 77. Legendary guitarist Les Paul died at 94 on Aug. 13. Pundit Robert Novak died at 78 on Aug. 18. The next day, Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes, died at age 86. Writer Dominick Dunne died at 83 on Aug. 26.

In September, one of the driving forces behind the creation of the long–running TV series M*A*S*H, writer Larry Gelbart, died at the age of 81. On Sept. 14, actor Patrick Swayze died at age 57. The same day, Jimmy Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell (65), and TV actor Henry Gibson (73) died. Two days later, Mary Travers of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary died at 72. Speechwriter/journalist William Safire died at 79 on Sept. 27.

Country music singer Rusty Wier died at 65 on Oct. 9. Actress Collin Wilcox, who is probably best known for her role as the woman who falsely accuses a black man of raping her in the 1962 movie "To Kill a Mockingbird," died at 74 on Oct. 14. Comedian Soupy Sales died at the age of 83 on Oct. 22. Michelle Triola Marvin, the plaintiff in the landmark "palimony" suit, died at 76 on Oct. 30.

John Jay O'Connor, the husband of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, died at age 79 on Nov. 11. Ironically, a man with a similar name, New York Times TV critic John J. O'Connor, died two days later at the age of 76.

Evangelist Oral Roberts died at 91 on Dec. 15. Actress Jennifer Jones died at age 90 on Dec. 17. Actress Connie Hines, who is remembered by many Baby Boomers for her role on the Mister Ed TV series, died at 78 on Dec. 18. An actress whose primary appeal was to a much younger audience, Brittany Murphy, died at age 32 on Dec. 20.

As I write this, there are still nearly 36 hours left in the year so anyone could still die before the new year begins. But, in hindsight, it seems unfair to label 2009 as the year when famous people died before their time. It may not have been a particularly pleasant year, but it hasn't been unusually deadly for either celebrities or those who are, as the saying goes, "too young to die."

I guess no recap of the deaths of 2009 would be complete without mentioning two names you probably never heard of. In the 1970s, they were linked by a best–selling book and, then, a made–for–TV movie that was based on that book. The opus was "Friendly Fire," which was written by C.D.B. Bryan in 1976. It was the true story of a young American soldier's death in Vietnam in 1970 as the result of "friendly fire" — i.e., fire from your own side — and the anger that led his parents to challenge the government's account of the circumstances.

This year, the mother of that soldier, Peg Mullen, died on Oct. 2 at age 92. Bryan died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 73.

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